The AFL (the Australian Football League) has a big stake in the bid to host the soccer world cup in Australia in either 2018 or 2022, and it can influence the outcome, so how should the AFL play its hand in this game?
I think the best result for the AFL is for the bid to simply fail. Australian rules football and soccer are competitors for players, fans, sponsorship and government support. This is not a win-win situation. If Australia hosts the world cup then some kids who would have played football will instead play soccer; some viewers will switch from watching football to watching soccer; some sponsors will switch; a whole season of football will be disrupted; and the building of rectangular stadiums will not help the AFL one iota. It is silly to say that a winning world cup bid would help all codes — if the world cup comes to Australia it will diminish the status of Australian rules football. Soccer is like an introduced species — beautiful in its own environment but a threat to the indigenous species of football in Australia.
Hosting the world cup would be good for the rugby codes. Aussie rules and soccer are competing for the same types of athletes — those with high skill who can run all day. But elite rugby players are out of a different mould. The dominant requirements in rugby are explosive power and physical toughness. Aussie rules is tough contact sport, but rugby is a collision sport played with frightful brutality at the highest level. If soccer becomes more popular in Australia then the pool of players available to play rugby will not be diminished. Moreover, the building of new rectangular football stadiums will help rugby tremendously. For instance, there is no quality rectangular stadium in Perth despite it being the home of a Super 14 team. A world class stadium would surely be built in Perth if the soccer world cup came to Australia.
So, it is obvious that the rugby codes should support the soccer world cup bid, but what about the AFL? The AFL has the power of veto over the Football Federation of Australia (FFA) bid. It can refuse to allow the MCG or the Docklands stadiums to be used. The AFL has watertight leases over those stadiums which go out beyond 2022. But such intransigence would damage its political support, so the AFL has already offered up the MCG. However, the AFL doesn’t have to refuse anything. All the AFL needs to do is to do to sink the bid is to have a big public argument with the FFA. The bid needs everyone in Australia behind it to have any chance of success. If the AFL doesn’t positively support the world cup bid then it won’t succeed.
The best strategy for the AFL is to offer wholehearted support for the bid in exchange for government funded building program for oval stadiums. Aussie and cricket are played on ovals. Soccer and rugby are played on rectangles. The AFL should team up with Cricket Australia to insist on funding of the building and improvement of oval facilities. The price of wholehearted AFL and CA support for the soccer world cup bid should be a Government commitment to a building program that goes ahead if the soccer world cup bid is successful.